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Photo: Lucius B. Truesdell/Arkham House


H. P. Lovecraft:
The Gentleman from Providence
(1890-1937)



Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. There he would live all of his life -- apart from two years in New York and various antiquarian sojourns, mainly within New England. His love of his native city and the region was profound and it provided the locale for most of his fiction.

He began reading at the age of four with such classics as the Brothers Grimm and Jules Verne. This was soon supplemented by Greek and Roman myth, and he also read widely in 18th-century Georgian verse, which provided a model for much of his own poetry. At the age of seven or eight he discovered Poe, who inspired his first juvenile fiction; of the discovery he would later write "it was my downfall," indicating that he would never again see the beauty of the world without an awareness of death.

In a couple more years, before age ten, Lovecraft discovered science. He fell in love with astronomy, which gave him, very early on, the cosmic perspective so important to his later works. Over the next ten years he wrote columns on astronomy for local papers as well as composing several volumes on astronomy and chemistry.

He was plagued by ill health all of his life; in the form of headaches, nervousness, and general fatigue it interferred with his school attendence, and a nervous breakdown prevented him from finishing high school and thus going on to college. This did not, however, prevent him from obtaining a superb self-education, thanks at first to his grandfather Whipple Phillips' extensive library; he was extremely erudite and constantly amazed his well-educated friends with his wide reading and sterling memory.

Several items of Lovecraft's family history have used in trying to make sense of Lovecraft the person and the writer. His father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a travelling salesman, died of paresis (insanity and paralysis caused by syphilis) when Howard was eight, after five years in an asylum; his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips, also died after being committed to the sanitarium (in 1921). Several of Lovecraft's stories begin with the narrator's admission that he might be considered mad -- a device borrowed from Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" but which may have implied a fear of hereditary madness on the author's part. When his grandmother died two years before his father, the family fell into despair and young Howard began having vivid nightmares. The later death of his grandfather created financial havoc and the family was forced to leave their homestead and share a house with another family -- a fall in status difficult to accept by the genteel Lovecrafts. Lovecraft's maternal ancestors, the Phillips line, an old Rhode Island family, was known to have inbred through the marriage of first cousins, which probably inspired Lovecraft's concern with racial purity and the theme of heriditary degeneration or "reverse evolution" present in several of his tales. More generally, Lovecraft witnessed all about him the immigration of foreigners and the advance of "progress" that threatened his beloved Colonial city and the "old ways" that formed so much of his self-made identity.

Beginning in 1914, Lovecraft became involved in the amateur press, which would become the first outlet for his literary efforts -- prinicipally essays and poems -- and provided a vicarious social network in which to develop his persona. A considerable mass of poems was published, largely derivative of 18th century writers such as Pope, Johnson, Thomas Gray, James Thomson and the so-called Queen Anne style. (Other visible influences on his poetry include Poe, Edward Arlington Robinson, and, possibly, his correspondents C. A. Smith and Donald Wandrei.)

In 1917, Lovecraft returned to fiction for the first time since his juvenalia. The following year (or perhaps as early as 1912) he began the ghost-writing or literary revision work that was to remain a major source of income during his life, though only a small part of it falls within the horror genre. (The most notable result was the story "Imprisoned with the Pharoahs," written in early 1924 for the magician Harry Houdini.) In 1919, Lovecraft discovered the writings of Lord Dunsany, with whom he felt an instant kinship. Even before reading Dunsany, he had already written some "Dunsanian" fantasy, which has been explained by reference to the King James Bible as a common influence. Reading A Dreamer's Tales, he said, induced "an electric shock" and provided "vast impetus" to his own writing. He travelled to Boston to hear Dunsany lecture, immediately wrote a poem of praise, and for a few years consciously imitated his newfound model. Most notable among these fantasies are "The White Ship" (1919), the psychologically revealing "Celephaïs" (1920), "The Silver Key" (1926), and the novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-27).

In 1923, Lovecraft first read Arthur Machen -- the last of his major literary influences. It was not so much Machen's somewhat overwrought and difficult style that appealed to Lovecraft (though he called him "perhaps the greatest living author") but his great subtlety and his recurring theme of the survival of ancient evil thought to be long dead and to exist only in myth and ritual, along with the theme of impinging dimensions and thus the flimsiness of space and time. Another author whom Lovecraft greatly admired, Algernon Blackwood, dealt expertly with basically the same theme. It is not clear when Lovecraft first read Blackwood, whose work ranked first on his list in mastery of "weird atmosphere." Shortly after his discovery of Machen, Lovecraft wrote one of his finest classical horror tales, "The Rats in the Walls," which became one of his first professionally published pieces, in the fledgling pulp magazine Weird Tales. ("Dagon" was the first, published in the October 1923 issue.) The following year, he was offered editorship of the magazine, but turned it down as it required relocating to Chicago. It time the magazine would publish nearly all of his major stories.

Other notable stories include the Poesque, memorable, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek "The Outsider" (1921); "The Shunned House" (1924), which infused a classic haunted house story with science fiction; the seminal "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926); the brilliant "The Colour out of Space" (1927), which Lovecraft considered to be his masterpiece, and many agree. (Other personal favorites also include "The Dreams in the Witch-House" (1932) and "The Music of Erich Zann" (1921).)

In 1924 Lovecraft married Sonia H. Greene, an immigrant Russian Jew, and moved to Brooklyn. But after a brief infatuation with the city he realized he hated New York and longed for Providence. Besides, he could get no work, depending on his wife (a skilled milliner) to supplement the meager income he received from revision work. Ironically, it was Sonia who relocated to the Midwest. The marriage did not last: both were strong-willed (friends described Sonia as "unusually domineering") and after two years they separated, though they remained correspondents.

Apart from his fiction, Lovecraft's legacy includes the long essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, considered "a magnificent achievement" and "a structural tour de force" by no less an authority on the field than E. F. Bleiler; even his famous detractor, American literary dean Edmund Wilson, considered it "a really able piece of work." Lovecraft began work on it while in New York, worked on it for two or three years, and it was published in 1927, though in 1933 he revised and expanded it. In Bleiler's estimation "after nearly fifty years [as of 1973] it remains the finest historical discussion of supernatural fiction."

Any survey of Lovecraft's life and works is incomplete without mention of his prodigious correspondence. He was undoubtedly the most phenomenal letter-writer in history: it is estimated that he wrote 100,000 letters comprising several million words -- from postcards to closely handwritten letters as long as forty to seventy pages! His output, by one comparison, exceeded that of other noted epistolarians Voltaire, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson combined. David Schultz, transcribing the Lovecraft letters on computer, has amassed 16 megabytes of texts (see below for further reference to this project). By comparison, less than 1% of the letters were published (many highly excerpted) within the 2000 pages of Lovecraft's five-volume Selected Letters.

Needless to say, Lovecraft also found time for creative writing. His total oeuvre consists of some fifty-odd short stories (major or minor), four short novels, a handful of prose poems, and some two dozen collaborations or ghost-written pieces in the horror genre, along with countless poems. It is on the best of this writing, naturally, that his reputation rests. In addition to Lovecraft's contribution to supernatural horror, his influence on science fiction -- by injecting horror elements and emphasis on atmospheric effect -- has been called "pivotal" by no less an authority than Sam Moskowitz. The so-called Cthulhu Mythos -- more a creation of his young correspondent, posthumous collaborator, and publisher August Derleth than of Lovecraft himself -- has taken on a life of its own, spawning scores of imitators and contributors, comic books, board and role-playing games, and World Wide Web sites. Unfortunately, what has made Lovecraft famous tends to exaggerate superficial elements of his work and overshadows his true contribution to the weird tradition and to American letters. Lovecraft's work was first collected and published in hardcover in 1939 by Derleth and Donald Wandrei's Arkham House publishing company, and has since been translated into Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, and other languages.

In the spring of 1937, the Gentleman from Providence was diagnosed with cancer. After five days in the hospital, Lovecraft died on March 19, 1937 -- not yet 47 years of age -- of cancer of the intestine and inflammation of the kidneys, from which he had suffered for a year -- he had called it "the grippe" and refused to see a doctor. He was buried in his family plot in Swan Point Cemetary, but it was not until forty years later that a stone was erected to mark the spot -- a labor of love on the part of his fans, organized by scholar Dirk Mosig. It reads, aptly, "I am Providence."

Sources


For further information, read the compleat biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life by leading Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi, published in October 1996 by Necronomicon Press. It won the Bram Stoker Award (Horror Writers of America) and the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction. Order from: Necronomicon Press.



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Last Updated: January 11, 2011.


Alan Gullette, Oakland, California. Email: alang@alangullette.com